Commentary Magazine

What Was Literature?, by Leslie Fiedler

Back to the Raft

What was Literature? Class Culture and Mass Society.
by Leslie Fiedler.
Simon & Schuster. 258 pp. $14.95.

As Leslie Fiedler himself acknowledges in his latest book, What Was Literature?, the only reason the editor Philip Rahv decided to publish Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” in the June 1948 issue of Partisan Review was that he was convinced that the essay was a jeu d’esprit. In Rahv’s estimation, Fiedler did not mean it when he declared that Huck Finn had a “homoerotic crush” on his fellow runaway Nigger Jim, that the love between “white male and black” was American civilization’s “archetypal” dream, and that our psychic “ambivalence” was “refracted” in the novels and poems of “every generation” of American writers from the very beginning of the Republic.

Depressingly enough, Fiedler did mean it—and still does. Thirty-five years have gone by in his career as a literary critic and professor of English and he still has not developed the detachment to admit that in defining the sexual vision of such 19th-century authors as James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain he had merely imposed upon them a 20th-century view of male sexuality which was very much under discussion in the United States in the early months of 1948 as the result of the publication of a best-selling sociological study. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Fiedler distorted the masculine relationships in the Leather stocking Tales, Moby-Dick, and Huckleberry Finn in order to bring them into line with the sensational assertion in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, by Alfred C. Kinsey and associates, that “perhaps the major portion of the male population [in the United States] has at least some homosexual experience between adolescence and old age.”

In a critique of the Kinsey Report in the April 1948 Partisan Review, Lionel Trilling failed to challenge its highly dubious statistics. He did, however, make some searching comments about its editorial bias. Although the authors of the Report claimed to be scientifically neutral about the various taboo practices they discussed, they actually were engaged in arguing for their moral acceptance, on the authority of animal behavior. “Thus, in order to show that homosexuality is not a neurotic manifestation, as the Freudians say it is, the Report adduces the homosexual behavior of rats.” Trilling also observed that the authors kept stressing how large an incidence of homosexuality they had encountered in the American male population as a further means of justifying their contention that homosexuality was a healthy form of sexual expression. In the behavioristic world of the Kinsey Report, whatever was was natural.

Kinsey and his colleagues were profoundly anti-intellectual, in Trilling’s opinion. They seemed to believe that making intellectual distinctions between forms of sexual expression inevitably led to social discrimination or exclusion. They rejected the conclusions of psychoanalysis which made sexual conduct an important clue to character and which viewed the etiology of homosexuality as lying in some warp of the psychic structure. In the teeth of evidence to the contrary, Kinsey and his associates insisted that the emotional illness which impels the homosexual to find psychiatric help was merely the result of the fear of social disapproval of his sexual conduct.

Two months later and in the pages of the same magazine, Fiedler implicitly replied to Trilling. The greatest books of America’s greatest writers were witnesses to the fact that homoerotic relationships were splendidly natural, especially when they were interracial, and it was only the deadly prejudices of a morally suffocated society which doomed those beautiful relationships to defeat. “In each generation,” Fiedler wrote in the concluding paragraph of “Come Back to the Raft,”

we play out the impossible mythos, and we live to see our children play it: the white boy and the black we can discover wrestling affectionately on any American sidewalk, along which they will walk in adulthood, eyes averted from each other, unwilling to touch even by accident. The dream recedes; the immaculate passion and the astonishing reconciliation become a memory, and less, a regret, at last the unrecognized motifs of a child’s book. “It’s too good to be true, Honey,” Jim says to Huck. “It’s too good to be true.”

The out-of-context quotation of Nigger Jim’s words to Huck was typical of the outrageous tricks to which Fiedler resorted—apparently without any awareness of wrongdoing—throughout the essay. So eager was he to challenge both the folk wisdom of the American people and the clinical wisdom of the psychoanalysts, so fervently was he dreaming of a Kinseyesque America of sexual pluralism and guilt-free self-indulgence, that he found it easy to convince himself that every important American writer from Cooper to Faulkner was on his side. The authors of the Kinsey Report believed in their dubious statistics no more firmly than Fiedler did in his fraudulent vision of American literature.

As Fiedler’s most recent book reminds us, “Come Back to the Raft” equated American society with the death of love; only in the wilderness, on a whaling ship or a raft could the “idyllic anti-marriage” of male companions be brought to “consummation.” In three subsequent volumes, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964), and The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), Fiedler reverted again and again to this argument, and to the same disreputable tricks for making it seem plausible. Only by violating all standards of critical responsibility was he able to demonstrate that America’s writers had never accepted their society’s moral standards.



No other professor worked harder than Fiedler did to prepare the way for the anarchic hedonism that overtook our colleges and universities in the late 1960’s. And when the children who had been born in the year of “Come Back to the Raft” finally began to display the same degree of contempt for official values that he had always expressed, Fiedler took care to remind the young rebels of how “with it” he was. Thus he told an interviewer from the Washington Post in 1969 that high-school teachers ought to be made to read Norman O. Brown, Timothy Leary, and other “New Gurus,” while their students should be given Tolkien rather than Spenser, or Milton, or “stuffier verse entertainers of the 19th century like, say, Tennyson.” In the process of providing additional proof of his infantile credentials, Fiedler also managed to get himself “busted” for turning his home in Buffalo, New York, into a premise where young people smoked marijuana.

Even after the return of peace to the campuses, Fiedler continued to court the approval of the most immature members of his audience. I was an entertainer, he says in What Was Literature?, who was “paid to allay boredom . . . by making our country and our culture seem more interesting and amusing than most academic accounts would lead us to believe.” Yet in spite of his efforts to allay it, the boredom of the students continued to spread. Surveying the contemporary academic scene, Fiedler finds nothing but bad news in the areas in which he has always worked. Enrollments in the humanities are “sagging,” and no wonder, for literary criticism in the university has become “impossible,” except in “institutionalized self-parodic form.”

This assessment of the current state of affairs in literary studies is not without substance. What Fiedler fails to acknowledge, however, is that the situation he deplores is one which he himself helped to create. For if the New Criticism of the 50’s and 60’s divorced texts from contexts, and the Post-Structuralism of the 70’s and 80’s has sought to abolish authors, Fiedler, too, has done his best to impoverish the study of literature by breaking down standards and transforming academic study into a theater of the self. “After more than four decades, one of the few things I believe I have really learned is that the teacher . . . teaches not so much his subject matter as himself.”



Far from admitting his own generous share of culpability for today’s dreary scene in the humanities, Fiedler proclaims a need to carry the campaign of destruction onward. The establishment of a curriculum that included Spenser, Milton, and Tennyson represented, according to him, the first revolution in American academic culture. When that revolution ran out of steam a second revolution was launched which brought a host of “less respectable” authors, from Mark Twain to the science fictionists, into the curriculum. Now that that second revolution has also failed, “the time for a third revolution . . . is at hand.”

In a final pathetic attempt to reclaim his status as a guru of the young, the author of What Was Literature? proposes that the academic distinction between high and low culture be completely obliterated, and that courses be offered in which the “songs and stories” of Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Dickens, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Margaret Mitchell, and Alex Haley be conjoined with the “songs and stories” of videoland—Starsky and Hutch, Kojak, Hill Street Blues, and Ten-speed and Brownshoe. For are not all of these achievements, Hill Street Blues no less than Huckleberry Finn, replete with the myths, fables, archetypes, and fantasies America craves? By thus joining together the sundered elements of our culture, Fiedler asserts in the most self-parodic of all of his arguments, the terrible age gap between teachers and students will at last be bridged, and the university will become a refuge—a sort of gigantic raft, as it were—where Americans will be “no longer separated from each other.”

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